Carina del Valle Schorske

Radical Flags


Juan de Tovar, Chicomóztoc: The Origins of the Tribes that Settled in or Close to Mexico, from the Tovar Codex, 1585

The first two flags I saw were like this: one flew on a pole in front of my school, and it was a wide rectangle that folded and ribboned in the wind, and the blue square studded with stars on the left came in and out of view, and the red and white stripes whipped around like the flash of a racecar on a track. A static version of this bright notion was hung in our classroom. To me it looked ugly indoors. Every morning we had to pray to it, standing, our hands over our small hearts. This is what we said:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.

The other flag I knew best was hardly ever let loose on the wind. It was hung in windows and painted on murals, people wore it on T-shirts, and it appeared in miniature on the packages of corn tortillas we bought for quesadillas. It also had stripes, but they were different: three vertical bars of color, first green, then white, then red. In the white bar lived a fantastic creature: a fearsome, feral eagle devouring a serpent, perched on a cactus growing from a rock. I did not know how it got there—on the flag, I mean. How did it invade that white space, that strict idea of the nation-state, with its pledges and borders and rules about what to do in the morning before math class?

* * *

In college I felt drawn to this other flag, and sat shyly in a corner at the meetings for MEChA, a chapter of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán. These students were vigorous organizers, heirs to the heroic tradition of César Chávez, and I wanted in. But I second-guessed myself, as though I needed to know who I was in order to know where to stand. I got caught up in preliminary questions: what did the “Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán” even mean? Where is Aztlán? I had to look it up, and Wikipedia led me into a psychedelic uterus, the place of the seven caves. It was from this intricate chamber that the ancestors of the Aztecs emerged as a people, and Aztlán was the place they settled first, their primordial hometown “far to the north” where they write of being ruled by a tyrannical elite. But the people who made this myth were travelers, so their longest songs are dedicated to the journey south. Guided by their god, Huitzilopochtli, they received a vision indicating that they would build their city where a certain sign appeared. Though the sign appeared on a tiny, swampy island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, that island became Tenochtitlan—and now Mexico City, the third-largest metropolitan area in the world.

The conquistadores tell the story differently. Even the title of the 1581 book that contains it—The History of the Indies of New Spain—is a kaleidoscopic confusion of imperial desire: “indies,” “New,” “Spain.” Fray Diego Durán imagines Aztlán as an Edenic paradise, free of disease and death. The rhetoric of conquest has a life of its own: soon it became the Aztecs themselves, and later their descendants, who represented the static origin of man in his “state of nature.” This account denies indigenous people and mestizos access to their own historical past; it disperses their heritage into the ether of prehistory, and drives their own origin myth out of mind. And this kind of cultural repression can have all sorts of long-term consequences for both the repressors and the repressed.

In the 1970s, several groups of Chicano activists called for the establishment of a new homeland for Mexican-Americans in the southwestern United States—California included, naturally. They called it Aztlán. Critics of the movement like to call it the “Reconquista”—a strange turn of phrase that almost sounds like a confession, if not an apology. The implication is that Mexican immigrants are re-conquering the region that the United States took from Mexico, that their presence is a counter-attack. But “la Conquista” is the official historical term for the Spanish conquest of the Americas. In some ways the word “reconquista” implies more than it means to: indeed, if Chicano nationalists are avenging anything, they are avenging the history that links the Spanish empire to the Anglo-American empire—those “political, social, and religious projects that aim at breaking definitively with the past and with human temporality so as to begin absolutely anew, ab ovo, no matter at what cost in material, cultural, and human destruction.” Here the literary critic Geoffrey Hartman is talking about modern European literature, but surely the most monumental example of this phenomenon is the cruel hubris of the words “New World.” The wild desperation of the colonization of our continents. In resurrecting Aztlán as an idea and an aspiration, Chicano activists return us to the origin myths that other empires untold in order to tell their own. They remind us that nations are made through rhetoric.

* * *

The American flag does not represent a moment in the history of the nation. It does not represent a distinctive attribute of the landscape. It is not even a riff on the crest or colors of a founding father. The most pervasive myth associated with the flag, as distinct from the Pledge of our childhood, is the myth of its own making—the story of the humble seamstress Betsy Ross abstractly transposing the five-pointed stars and stripes, as though, as Yeats passionately declared, “once out of nature [we] shall never take / [our] bodily form from any natural thing.” No, we would take our form from the imagination. This act is original in its denial of prior origin—neither Betsy Ross nor her design seem so interested in history. The philosopher Jacob Needleman remembers regarding the strange symbol similarly when he was a schoolboy:

We were told the flag was sacred, and this caused us to give all of our attention to it. After that, it was really our attention itself that made the flag sacred, far more than the little we knew about its history. . . . stories about the origins and significance of the flag only brought bored smirks to our faces.

Yes, we are told that the stars and stripes represent the states and colonies, but there is something academic in the explanation, since this meaning cannot be communicated by the image itself. Even if it were, the symbolism circles back not to the reason or root of our national being but to the event of national invention, with which the flag is essentially synonymous. Perhaps it is because of this abstract quality that the star-spangled banner demands such intense attention. Our anthem is an ode to it, and most schools require us to pay it daily tribute. The Flag Code outlines elaborate rules of conduct in relation to it. And it is, as Needleman remembers, this attention that generates meaning. But even if these rituals generate meaning, the meaning is nothing more than the practice of patriotism, rather than a specific understanding of our patria. Though many words encircle the flag like a barbed-wire halo, they do not describe much more than a pattern of red, white, and blue. If the flag is supposed to say something about who we are as a people, then why does it say so little?

Needleman remembers that “stories about […] origins and significance […] only brought bored smirks to our faces.” Any child can see that the flag is not a history lesson. Any child can feel that it means to be forever new. The price of this forever newness is that the unspecific image floats freely, equally at home on a teenager’s bikini or thrust into the ground at Iwo Jima. Behind these bored smirks lurks a profoundly American ambivalence as to the place of “origins and significance” in a revolutionary nation. The ease with which Needleman pairs these two terms belies the complex history of their conflation. But in the case of the United States, if significance is to be found at the origin, then our country must contend with the fact that at its root is an uprooting. A revolution. Not only—nor even primarily—a war with the British, but the aggressive denial and systematic devastation of the indigenous peoples of North America. Our flag avoids this reality.

* * *

“One characteristic of the symbol is that it is never wholly arbitrary; it is not empty, for there is the rudiment of a natural bond between the signifier and the signified. The symbol of justice, a pair of scales, could not be replaced by just any other symbol, such as a chariot.” –Ferdinand de Saussure

The American flag is not a symbol according to this definition. As with words, the signs of language, there is no trace of a natural bond between the signifier and the signified, the image and its meaning. But our flag is a special case. The abstract nature of the stars and stripes, intensified by our attention, acquires symbolic status, designating the abstract nature of the nation itself. In the eyes of the patriot, this can be euphemistically seen as inventive and revolutionary. Even as the nation’s abiding essence. But what a monumental feat of rhetoric! What a flagrant, flimsy flag to fly! The American flag justifies nothing but invention—not government, not authority, not ownership.

The Mexican flag, on the other hand, does seem like a symbol, with its recognizable figures: the eagle, the snake, the cactus, the rock. It is meant to work analogically, to imply that the Mexican nation-state shares certain characteristics with these figures. And much more explicitly, the image is a rendering of the sign the Aztecs saw on their founding journey, the sign that says, yes, build here, yes, this is where you belong. Of course, this recourse to analogy is its own anxiety. It expresses the nation-state’s need to ally itself with something else—with nature and with “natural man.”

* * *

I was confused about the meaning of the word radical, so I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary:

radical: 1. Of, belonging to, or from a root or roots; fundamental to or inherent in the natural processes of life, vital. 2. Relating to or forming the root, basis, or foundation of something; original, primary.

3 a. Polit. Advocating thorough or far-reaching political or social reform; representing or supporting an extreme section of a party. b. Characterized by independence of or departure from what is usual or traditional; progressive, unorthodox, or innovative in outlook, conception, design, etc.

In Spanish the word is exactly the same, and we find the same schizophrenia. Though reform requires change, and is for this reason a secondary process, it styles itself as a return to the natural way. We want one word for two instincts: the instinct for “roots” and the instinct for “reform,” the instinct for “foundation” and the instinct for “departure.”

* * *

radical: 1.

Fundamental, inherent, original, primary: it is no wonder that institutions so often turn to images of nature when they want to justify themselves. The particular attributes of these natural images are not as important as their naturalness, since their naturalness is not subject to interpretation. It is nature’s mere being that is the envy of the nation-state. Paul de Man describes man’s view of the natural object in his book The Rhetoric of Romanticism, whose applicability here derives from the fact that romanticism as an aesthetic movement coincides with the rise of nationalism and self-determination, in the Old World and in the New. De Man says that “the natural object, safe in its immediate being, seems to have no beginning and no end. Its permanence is carried by the stability of its being, whereas a beginning implies a negation of permanence, the discontinuity of death. For natural entities like the flower, there is no wavering in the status of their existence.” Because each manifestation of the object—of the flower, of the eagle, and even of the flag itself—does not appear to differ from its previous or subsequent manifestation, it seems to sustain itself in an unbroken chain of being; it seems to achieve a kind of immortality.

The nation-state nurses a deep desire to establish itself as the “law of the land”—an idiom which invokes the “laws of nature” and aspires to their inevitablity. We ask, how can we become like the immortal eagle, like the immovable rock? Phrased more strongly, the question takes on a religious resonance: how can we become immortal? Already the turn to the concept of “becoming,” inevitably linked to the concept of “beginning,” indicates the futility of the question. If the desirable characteristic of the object is its seeming infinity, then asking how it began truncates that infinity at one end and nullifies that characteristic.

radical: 3.

But what are humans, as conscious creatures, to do? We have conscious control over beginning, not originating; making, not being. Political and cultural activity is a movement rather than a state, though the word itself, “state,” rails against this reality as it clamors to acquire the permanence of the natural object. But for all its elaborate efforts to identify itself with nature, the nation-state does not want to identify itself with nature’s silence and mindlessness, which seems to us like a kind of death. Death becomes a siren that promises ultimate unity, a sort of quiescent and powerful eternity, but demands a high price for the privilege.

There is a threat that hangs over all creative projects, whether poetic or political, and their attempts to install themselves in the natural order: that to succeed in doing so would paradoxically require the sacrifice of their power as conscious beings, the power to intervene, the power to reform. What the nation-state desires is not, precisely, the status of object in its immortal “being,” but “becoming” immortalized.

(What I desire is not to return to the state of nature prior to the Fall, but to return to the Garden having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge.)

* * *

The radicalism of nature runs counter to the radicalism of consciousness, and so we draw near the eagle, snake, cactus, and the rock with a wary eye. They represent immortality—the order to aspire to if we want to last, to be “like gods”—at the same time that they threaten us with immortality’s opposite, the death of consciousness. Political rhetoric does not explicitly respond to this threat; natural objects are almost always praised and paraded as authenticating symbols of the state. The fear of nature’s deathliness is instead an unconscious current that manifests itself more bluntly, in acts of violence towards nature and so-called “natural man.” These acts of violence enforce hierarchical distance even as the political rhetoric professes unity.

* * *

Edward Curtis, The Vanishing Race, 1904

This image is a piece of propaganda. It was produced at a moment when the “Indian question” was at the forefront of American consciousness, and the possible answers proposed by the American government can be starkly phrased as “assimilate or die.” The photographer, Edward Curtis, seems to wistfully choose the second option on behalf of his subjects, titling the image “The Vanishing Race.” And indeed, he shows the Navajo riders receding darkly into the landscape, hunched and faceless, already at one with the shadows they cast. Only one man looks back, bidding his territory farewell, as though ceding it to the figure of the viewer. You find yourself standing firmly rooted in the place vacated by the riders. Visually, the device is clear: the humanity and significance of the American Indian is reduced by his hazy absorption into the nature.

But here we have a puzzle. There can be no doubt that the conflation of the American Indian and the American landscape is menacing; it is meant to undermine the Indian claim to self-consciousness and self-rule. And yet, at the same time, this conflation is not motivated by scorn for the land, but rather by a rapacious desire for it. Far from dismissing the notion of unity with nature as primitive, the American government yearns towards this unity not only as the precondition for economic success but also as the key to the national character. Frederick Jackson Turner articulates this idea most explicitly in a paper delivered at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: “This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character” (my italics). In other words, the American settler owes his identity to the land and the process of its acquisition, and once it has been acquired, the land serves as his most ennobling symbol and most resplendent reflection.

Paradoxically, we are left to conclude that any kind of mimetic bond with nature degrades the Indian but dignifies the white American. The two symbolic faces of nature, the void and the god, are conveniently split, so that all that is mute, unconscious, and doomed to vanish is associated with the exiled Indian and all that is empowered, eternal, and inevitable is associated with the white race and its political dominion. In an effort to escape the paradox posed by identification with the natural world, Curtis saddles the Navajo riders with the fate of being absorbed by the earth in the white man’s place. With a sick sort of graciousness, he ushers the tribe into the sunset as one might usher aging parents, whose genetic contribution can be best enjoyed in their absence.

The spatial ambiguity of the photograph is sophisticated: while on the one hand it positions you so that you are in line with the riders, following in their footsteps and making use of the trail they have cleared, it also sends the riders over the earth’s dark rim, so that you find yourself, by contrast, standing still at the bright center of the landscape. You are afforded the luxury of appropriation without identification, both with the American Indian and with nature.

This rhetoric has derived its lasting power in part from the fact that American Indian populations did suffer a precipitous decline in numbers during this period of time, as they were corralled in desolate reservations and subjected to harsh treatment in the “Indian schools” of the West, where children were often taken after being kidnapped from their tribal homes.

* * *

By the numbers, the human cost of conquest was much higher in Mexico than in the United States, but then again, pre-Columbian Mexico was much more densely populated, and the Spanish pursued a program of intermarriage (in addition to the unofficial military program of rape) that resulted in large mestizo populations that often retained—and retain to this day—close linguistic and cultural ties to their indigenous roots. This is not to say that the Indian population has not been consistently undercounted and obfuscated throughout Mexican history. But the sheer numbers of people with strong Indian heritage in Mexico have made their presence impossible to deny, locate unproblematically in the past, or assimilate away.

Indeed, the Mexican flag flies in plain sight, unashamed in its invocation of pre-Columbian history and whatever blood might stain its pages: “ecstatic before the cactus with its eagle and its serpent—the happy essence of our country—[the wandering tribe] heard the bird’s prophetic voice promising them refuge on those hospitable lakes.” The Mexican essayist Alfonso Reyes is not alone in his sense of delight in the ancient symbol, nor is he alone in his lack of deeper attention to it.

Upon closer historical examination, it becomes clear that very little energy was expended getting the origin story right. Very little energy was spent verifying sources or carefully combing through ruins or tracing oral stories—or if this archaeology was performed, then its findings were not honored. Any cursory journey through the original pictorial codices, paintings, and post-Cortesian Nahuatl manuscripts reveals that while the eagle appears many times in the depiction of the founding of Tenochtitlan—sometimes alone, sometimes devouring another bird, sometimes clutching the Aztec glyph meaning war—the serpent is entirely absent. How, then, do we explain its presence in the coat of arms, which is a symbol intended to authenticate the state and link it to a native tradition?

Historians now confirm that the serpent was derived from an incorrect translation of the Crónica Mexicayotl. In the Nahuatl text, the words ihuan cohuatl izomocayan mean “the snake hisses,” but they were mistranslated as “the snake is torn.” Although the error was detected fairly quickly, the same Diego Durán that Edenized Aztlán seized the opportunity to reinterpret the legend according to the European iconographical tradition. The serpent was now associated with sin and the fall of man, and the eagle with nobility and justice. This new interpretation was propagated by means the same History of the Indies of New Spain, published in 1581:

An excerpt from Friar Diego Durán’s The History of the Indies of New Spain Showing the Founding of Tenochtitlan.

Of course, the serpent already had a rich iconographical history in the Aztec tradition, particularly in its associations with the god Quetzalcoatl, the patron of priests, and the figure which, according to the chronicles of early conquistadores, was famously associated with Hernán Cortés. Obviously, these associations suggest a wealth of interpretive possibilities, but they were suppressed and subordinated in favor of a Catholic interpretation of the sign. Inadvertently, even this interpretation returns us to the paradoxical purpose of the coat of arms: to return to the eternity of Eden by avenging the expulsion from it, to achieve stability of being through a violent intervention.

Despite this radical mistranslation and reinterpretation, the serpent did not immediately become a canonical element in the Mexican coat of arms. It was not until April of 1823, when the first federal republic was founded and the second national flag adopted, that the serpent appeared in the eagle’s right talon. It is almost as though the Constitutional Congress mistook the serpent as a sign of the defeated Spanish Empire, rather than the sign of its triumph. In any case, the inclusion of the serpent is always a willful choice to “improve upon” the Aztec sign and move the national rhetoric in a new direction. Its very willfulness undermines the naturalizing project of the flag, though as the flag is propagated, fewer and fewer people recognize the innovation. Radical 1a eclipses radical 3.

Still, there is an uncomfortable sense in which the flag almost functions as a taunt to contemporary Indians. The Crónica Mexicayotl—its language and its stories—is known well enough that the government could not have expected to completely pass the coat of arms off as the authentic Aztec sign. The government’s inclusion of the serpent indicates real disinterest in the details of Indian life, past as well as present. Furthermore, the selection of any sign related to the sign seen on Lake Texcoco refers to a time when the people who would become the Aztecs were not native to the region. Though it certainly can be said to represent the “origin” of Mexico, the sign more literally represents their migrancy and undermines their claim to the earth. It says: the Aztecs once arrived, made an image, and claimed the land as their own. Now the heirs of the Spanish are doing the same, altering the old image and claiming it as theirs.

Though more coded in its message, the Mexican flag is not so different from the American flag. It also illustrates the impossibility of a definitive origin and the violence required to invent an origin of any kind. Interpreted in this way, it is a lure to the migrants among us. The Mexican flag, hung in windows in my hometown, only occasionally represents loyalty to the nation-state of Mexico. Instead, it represents the perpetual possibility of making Mexico, and the universal liberty to do so: Aztlán is where I go. I am Aztlán.

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